Six-sided columns ran up basalt ramparts like a stack of Grecian pillars. A dike of perfect gold stairs split a strange, 300-foot tower of gray choss. Snowy mountains with slopes of varicolored grasses fell precipitously to orchards, sedge and clear rivers. Gorges of volcanic rock were cloaked in fog.
Climbers threaded up the pillars and through the hanging hexagonal blocks, placing tiny cams. Little yellow rain jackets negotiated the gold steps. It looked like the best trad climbing area in the world.
I see dozens of photos every day, but these struck like a bell. Before I saw Sam Bie’s images, all I knew about Armenia was that it produced wrestlers and chess champions. After seeing the shots, I wanted to know more.
Mkhitar Mkhitaryan, 30, is a mountain guide and Armenia’s only active route developer. He taught himself to climb six years ago after watching an old video of Patrick Edlinger soloing in the Verdon Gorge broadcast on Armenian television.
I hadn’t any clue of rock climbing, he wrote in a recent e-mail. I imagined myself Patrick Edlinger and landed down badly from 12 meters height.
Mkhitar pole-axed his leg, but after a year of recovery he started combing the Internet, looking for more reliable information on how to climb. He learned some basic techniques and discovered film of Dan Osman, the late California climber known for his outrageous speed solos and soaring rope jumps.
Mkhitar is also Armenia’s only rope-jumper.
[At first] I learnt everything theoretically, he wrote of his climbing, as I had no gear to practice. Then I heard about Spitak Rescue Center,” a community search and rescue holdover from the days of Soviet occupation,”and became a member. They had some handmade chocks and cams and some 15-year-old ropes. As rock shoes I bought a pair of galoshes, the ones by which the Russians used to climb up to the 1980s.
Will Nazarian, an Armenian/American climber from Bend, Oregon, visited his father’s birth country for the first time last year and developed an immediate friendship with Mkhik, who he described as very excitable, endlessly motivated to climb, and kinda runty, like me.
Nazarian, an active climber and first ascentionist with 25 years experience, was blown away by the stacks of splitter cracks all over. After establishing one 5.10, he left Mkhitar his Bosch drill, his rack of cams and an admonition to get the word out about Armenian climbing.
Soon after Will’s visit, Mkhitar came up with the idea for an Armenian climbing festival to promote the development of new routes on the many untapped walls. He posted a little blurb about the event on his website uptherocks.com and waited, hoping that someone would show up.
Sam Bie, a French climbing photographer, was looking for a project when a small news item popped up on a Russian climbing website announcing the Armenian First Ascent Open Festival. Along with the announcement were lousy pictures of aesthetically hallucinating walls. Unfortunately, Bie couldn’t drop everything and make the festival, but a year later he and top climber Alex Chabot arrived in Armenia with the intention of sending new routes and documenting their discoveries.
When Mkhitar skyped his bro Will and told him that Bie and Chabot were on the way, Nazarian wrote back, These Frenchies are going to put Armenia on the rock-climbing map, dude.
Sure enough, the French added 10 new pitches to a country that even now has only 15 routes.
Bie wrote, The reality exceeded my imagination. Suspended hexagonal columns, cut sharp, like glass ceilings. Huge and aesthetically breath-taking. Better than all expectations.
The climbs ranged from 5.9 trad to 5.12b trad and 5.12c sport. Chabot, 28 and with over 20 World Cup titles under his belt, braved the precarious-looking terrain, deftly punching tiny cams between the columns, and pushed the existing standard for trad and sport climbing two full number grades. He also opened Mkhitar’s eyes to what is possible.
I hope to try these climbs at the end of this season, Mkhitar wrote. Just need to get a bit of a dare, as on the overhanging sections the broken columns are so scary.
Getting There: A flight from Paris (or Amsterdam) to Yerevan (the Armenian capital) will cost about $500. A visa, available on arrival in Yerevan will cost about $8. You can hire a car for about $30 a day. Garni Gorge (see photos) is about 20 minutes from the Yerevan airport.
Currency Exchange: One U.S. dollar is equivalent to 365 Dram (AMD).
Food: Expect to pay about $6 for delicious savory meats and vegetables with nuts and fruit stuffed into grape leaves (dolmas) and mouth-watering pickles. Hotel double rooms cost about $25 a night. Budget about $35 a day (including gasoline and miscellaneous items) for two people.
People: By all accounts, the Armenian people are among the most warm and welcoming in the world. Both Nazarian and Bie described being invited to impromptu barbecues and treated as family by complete strangers. They always offer half of what they have, Nazarian said. They live very simply. No running water, home gardens. You don’t see machinery in the fields, but people working. After centuries of war, genocide and the resultant Armenian Diaspora (see sidebar), the people have adopted a strict altruistic ethic, especially toward strangers. Travelers are well treated. No security problems.
Website and guide service: www.uptherocks.com, Mkhitar Mkhitaryan.
Climbing Gear: Multiple sets of cams to 4 inches. Two ropes, long slings, quick links and helmets.
Season: Armenia enjoys a continental climate with dry, sunny summers lasting from June to September. Expect temperatures to range between 72 and 97 degrees F. Low humidity and cool evening breezes blowing down from the mountains help mitigate warm temperatures. Springs are short, while autumn is a longer transitional season, celebrated for its vibrant, colorful foliage. Winters are cold and snowy.
Armenia comprises the mountainous Caucasus region bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Iran and Azerbaijan. The name is derived from the name of Noah’s great-great grandson, who (according to the historian Moses of Chorene) defeated the Babylonian king Bel in 2492 BC and took over rule of the highland. This antiquity permeates Armenian history as empire after empire established sovereignty, then crumbled. The Mitanni were succeeded by the Nairi around 1500 BC, the Nairi succumbing to the Uratu 500 years later. The present-day Armenian capital, Yerevan, is over 2,500 years old.
From 1200 to 1400 Armenia was wracked by invasions, first by the Mongols, then in quick succession by the Kara Konyunlu, Timurid and Ak Konyunlu tribes of central Asia. The constant war weakened the Armenian people, and the Persians and Ottoman Turks divided up the country between them for most of the 1500s. Over the next 300 years, friction developed between the Christian population and the strict, official Muslim mores. When the Armenians demanded more religious freedom in 1894, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Abdu’ l-Hamid II organized state-sponsored massacres that lasted for two years and resulted in the murder of at least 80,000 Armenian people.
Increasingly nervous about their unruly, mistreated neighbors, the Ottoman Empire passed the Tehcir Law in 1915 that allowed special measures to be taken against the Armenian people. The law legalized the forcible deportation of the indigenous population and was accompanied by orders to the Teşkîlât-ı Mahsûs, a Special Forces unit of the Empire, to eliminate the deportees. According to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, more than a million Armenians were killed between 1915 and 1916.
Armenia was ruled by the Soviets from 1920 to 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia found itself at war with Azerbaijan and blockaded by Turkey. The borders with these countries remain closed and all trade is conducted through Iran and Georgia.
At present, the democratic nation of Armenia is at peace, observing a ceasefire with Azerbaijan that has lasted for 16 years.